Once just a haven for intrepid backpackers, nowadays Thailand is one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the world. Different parts of Thailand cater to different crowds—from wide-eyed adventurers at the start of a big trip to throngs of package tourists on a lazy holiday.
That means to get the experience you’re looking for, you have to know where to go!
Yep… there’s the island of Koh Phi Phi, the Full Moon Party, or Bangkok’s tourist street of Khao San; these places get mentioned every time. They can be fun, even though they’re a little tacky and overhyped.
But there’s much more to Thailand, and in this guide (based on 3 Thailand trips so far) I will try to highlight some other best places to visit, a few places to avoid, and give you some general Thailand travel tips.
To be honest, if you’ve already lived with goat herders in Kazakhstan or battled frostbite on Mt Everest, then maybe Thailand is not quite adventurous enough for you. But if you’re simply looking for something fun, varied, and exotic, then it’s the perfect country to visit.
From Golden buddhist temples to buzzing night markets, and from its delicious food to its gorgeous coastline, it’s easy to see why Thailand remains ever so popular.
TIP This is an in-depth 5000+ word guide. Bookmark it for later reference!
Where to go in Thailand
Before listing some of the key places to visit, let me give you an overview of Thailand. The map below shows some of the top travel destinations.
While it can be fun to go off the beaten track, most people will inevitably end up in many of these places:
When creating your route, it’s a good idea to go to the north first. The sights from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai are more culture- and nature-focused, and so many people like to tick those off the list first.
If you head for the southern beaches straight away, you might just get stuck in a hammock!
This region is more mountainous, has cooler temperatures, and is generally more relaxed. With its hazy mountains and lush valleys, the region is popular for jungle trekking and for visiting indigenous hill tribes.
The main city Chiang Mai has super low prices and an easygoing atmosphere, making it a great base from which to explore. Three hours north of Chiang Mai is the small town of Pai, a funky backpacker hangout amid a rural landscape with rice fields, hot springs, and waterfalls.
Northwest of Chiang Mai is the Mae Hong Son province, Thailand’s least populous region. For a great road trip, you can rent scooters and ride the Mae Hong Son loop through these tranquil backwaters of Thailand, starting and ending in Chiang Mai or Pai.
Chiang Rai is another city well worth a visit, acting as a gateway to various national parks and for onward travel to Laos.
Besides the capital of Bangkok, of particular note in Central Thailand are the archaeological sites of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, both filled with the crumbled remains of ancient Buddhist temples.
About 120km from Bangkok is the small riverside city of Kanchanaburi, made famous by the movie Bridge over the River Kwai. It’s got a small traveller scene and is a good base for visiting historical sites, waterfalls, and Sai Yok National Park.
The south of Thailand is all about the beaches and islands.
The west coast along the Andaman Sea has some of the most developed resorts in Thailand, with Phuket focused mainly on fly-and-flop package holidays, and Phi Phi Island seemingly buckling under its popularity. I think Ao Nang beach and Khao Sok National Park make for better stops around here, as do the islands of Koh Lanta, Koh Lipe or Koh Kradan.
The east coast has fewer islands, but thanks to a shorter monsoon they can be enjoyed almost year-round. Koh Samui has its own airport and is home mainly to mid-range and upmarket holiday resorts. Koh Tao is one of the cheapest and best places in the world to learn scuba diving, while Koh Phangan is part party island, part secluded island paradise.
Hostel recommendationsbrowse thailand hostels »
|Suneta Hostel Khaosan||Bangkok||Modern yet cozy hostel, away from busy Khaosan Road but close enough to walk there. Lovely common room with several pet guinea pigs.|
||Bangkok||In a less touristy part of Bangkok with wonderful courtyard garden. Read about my stay at Yard Hostel.|
|Green Tulip House
||Chiang Mai||Colorful Chiang Mai hostel with a great atmosphere and rooftop lounge.|
||Pai||Just slightly out of town, but loved staying here among the rice fields. Social party atmosphere.|
|Sleep Club Hostel||Krabi||Artfully decorated hostel with dorms and privates, friendly and chill.|
|Shiralea Backpackers Resort
||Koh Phangang||Modern hostel with swimming pool, dorms and privates. Party atmosphere at night.|
|Lub D Phuket||Patong, Phuket||Boutique hostel with beds for any type of traveller. Perfect location + swimming pool.|
|Goodtime Beach Hostel
||Koh Tao||The highest-rated hostel on Koh Tao, situated on the main beach.|
Not into hostels? If you look around a bit, you can find great guesthouses and bungalows for under $35/night. Some examples below.
|Guesthouse DD Hut||Koh Tao||Mini-resort with modern bungalows right on Sairee Beach, with private balconies and sea views. $33/n|
|The Earth House||Koh Tao||Thai-style bamboo bungalows among the palm trees with cozy beer garden. $12/n.|
|Railay Viewpoint Resort||Railay Beach (Krabi)||Rooms available around $35/n near one of south Thailand’s most popular beaches.|
|High Life Bungalow||Koh Phangang||Mini-resort on top of a cliff overlooking the beach with hammocks, swimming pool & sea views. Starting at $24/n.|
|Rainforest Boutique Hotel||Chiang Mai||Chiang Mai has possibly the largest offering of budget to mid-range accommodation. This is one great example but there are hundreds more.|
|Khao Sok Palm Garden Resort||Khao Sok National Park||There’s a lot of affordable jungle hut style accommodation in beautiful Khao Sok National Park. Another example is Monkey Mansion.|
For great hotel deals in Thailand I recommend searching on Booking.com as they have one of the largest selections of independent and boutique hotels.
Places to visit in Thailand
Opinions will always differ on the best places to visit in Thailand, but I think the following are some of the must-see highlights that are worth adding to your itinerary.
Bangkok’s Grand Palace and temples
The palacial grounds in Bangkok were long the nerve centre of the Siamese kingdom. The large complex is full of throne halls, royal residences and golden Buddhist temples, and nowadays most of the court and temples are open to visitors. The Grand Palace and royal temple of Wat Phra Kaew [map] are typically open from 8.30 am till 3.30pm. It’s a good idea to go in the morning when there’s fewer people there. Later in the day, it can get pretty rammed! Admission fee is 500 Baht.
Just around the corner from the Grand Palace is also Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which was once a traditional medicine education center and is the birthplace of the traditional Thai massage. It houses a 46 meters long gilded reclining Buddha statue, and the temple itself features beautifully intricate detailing.
From the riverbank near Wat Pho you can take a ferry across to the other side, where you can marvel at Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn. From the top of this tallest temple in Bangkok you get some great views of the city.
These are some of Bangkok’s prime tourist sights, so don’t expect to be alone! The temples open at 8:00 and this can be a great time to visit, as most tour groups arrive later in the day.
For a great taste of the vibrant hustle-and-bustle of Bangkok, go to the Chinatown district [map] and get lost in its maze of markets and narrow alleys. You’ll see fishmongers chopping fish, welders fixing equipment, and strange foodstuffs for sale—all amid a sea of Thai and Chinese neon signage.
This beehive of commercial activity is simply a feast for the eyes and an amazing place for street photography. Put your map or phone with GPS away and simply wander around, and don’t be afraid to explore the little alleys where some of the hidden local markets can be found.
Explore hidden Bangkok
One of the most fun things I did in Bangkok was to take a bicycle tour through some of the less-visited neighborhoods, followed by a longboat tour of rural Bangkok. It’s a side of Bangkok that relatively few tourists get to see.
But this is not the only way to get a different perspective. The WithLocals platform provides many walking tours run by locals, as well as dining experiences at local Thai homes, which can add a more meaningful twist to your Bangkok visit.
Bangkok’s Ari neighborhood
If you’re a budget traveller in Bangkok for the first time, chances are you’ll end up in Banglamphu (which has the famed backpacker district of Khao San Road) or in the Silom or Phayathai areas. These are all in downtown, putting you right in the middle of Bangkok’s love-it-or-hate-it chaos. All of these are good areas to stay if you want to be close to the action.
Many visitors feel overwhelmed by Bangkok initially, but grow to appreciate it more on subsequent visits. Since Bangkok is such a key travel hub, you are likely to pass through more than once — and if you do, it’s nice to stay in Ari [map] on your second visit.
It’s not quite as close to the sights, but it’s an oasis of calm, and truly a world apart from Khao San. It’s mainly locals, expats, and travellers-in-the-know who hang out here, with just a few top rated hostels and guesthouses tucked away in its residential streets. Foodies shouldn’t miss the nearby Boat Noodle Alley.
The ruined capital of Sukhothai
The ancient capital of Sukhothai, once the heart of the Siamese empire, is now a complex of temple ruins that makes for a perfect stop if travelling between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The ancient ruins are spread amongst multiple zones, and those interested in the history could spend several days here. Even on a shorter visit, it’s worth spending the night, so you can have at least one full day the site.
Chiang Mai’s night markets
Every evening, the center of Chiang Mai comes alive with a massive street market. You can find anything here ranging from genuinely nice handicraft souvenirs to Thai bootleg DVDs. The Night Bazaar has a nice atmosphere and is worth going even if you don’t intend to buy anything, with all manner of restaurants and entertainment clustered around the market streets.
The regular night market takes place every day, though there are two separate night markets on the weekend that tend to have more authentic or higher quality wares. It’s worth timing your stay in Chiang Mai to coincide with the weekend markets. The Saturday evening market is along Wualai Street, while the Sunday Market goes through the old town along Ratchadamonoen Road.
Elephant Nature Park
Time for a confession: the first time I was in Thailand I rode an elephant. I didn’t know anything about how they get tortured when they’re young (so they will later obey commands) or any of the other animal welfare abuses. The mahouts assured us everything was fine, but they were pulling wool over our eyes.
Thankfully, there are now more enlightened elephant parks that have stopped the practice of riding the elephants (so they don’t need to be horrifically broken in). Instead, they invite visitors to simply feed and wash these wonderful creatures. There’s something truly beautiful about connecting with these gentle giants and realizing just what a tiny little human you are. Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai is known for its ethical practices.
Hill Tribe trekking
Numerous trekking companies organize one- or multi-day treks around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Pai, passing through green rice paddies and lush jungles, and stopping by some of the hill tribe villages along the way.
The people in these traditional villages live in wooden houses on stilts, and while they have basic facilities like water tanks and solar panels, they usually still cook over wood fires and live on subsistence farming. Someone in the village will typically prepare a meal for you, which you eat while sitting on the floor. On multi-day treks, you’ll be offered a homestay in one of these villages.
A hill tribe trek is a perfect way to enjoy the landscapes of northern Thailand, while gaining a cultural perspective as well. Remember to be respectful and only take pictures of people if they allow it.
Backpacker hangout Pai
Once a rural backwater, the tiny village of Pai evolved into a hippie hideout in the 90ies, before becoming a key spot on the Thailand travel trail more recently. While it’s been a couple of years since I was last in Pai, people tell me its laidback vibe and local charm haven’t changed.
There’s a great bar scene in Pai that’s more social and down-to-earth than in southern Thailand. Mini day trips to the Mo Paeng and Pam Bok waterfalls, the Pai Canyon, hot springs, and an odd little sight called the Land Crack will keep you busy for several days. It’s best to rent a motorbike so you can explore the area on your own (driving license optional… this is Thailand after all).
Pai town itself is full of vegetarian and Thai hipster cafes and restaurants, with accommodation ranging from basic hostels to funky tree house resorts.
Tham Lod cave
Along the Mae Hong Song loop in northeast Thailand you’ll find a small town called Soppong (also known as Pang Mapha), a beautiful place from where you can explore countless caves and caverns.
Tham Lod is the largest of these caves, which you enter on bamboo rafts and explore just by the flickering light of a gas lamp. You’ll see some prehistoric 1,700-year-old coffins along the way, and if you time your visit well, you can witness hundreds of thousands of swifts leave the jungle and fly into the cave to rest for the night. This is, in a word, epic.
Other smaller caves in the area let you swim through cave rivers, crawl through crevices that just barely fit a person, and gasp at underground waterfalls. Guided treks are available via the Cave Lodge, which is a quiet and rustic base for hikers and spelunkers in the middle of the forest.
Chiang Rai’s White Temple
By the time you get to Chiang Rai you may feel totally templed out, but you may want to give the unusual White Temple a look anyway. The project of a local artist, it mixes traditional Buddhist symbolism with contemporary art, and features murals with references to Neo from The Matrix, the Terminator, and Hello Kitty (yes, really!), among many others. Cardboard cut-outs of the artist himself guide you through the site.
Look, I didn’t say this place is traditional or authentic. Still, the temple itself is unmistakably beautiful, and you may just love the tacky madness of it all. You’ll probably come to Chiang Rai for its food markets and mountain scenery, but the White Temple makes for a great little bonus.
Krabi & Railay beach
The province of Krabi is famed for its beached ringed by tall karst cliffs. The most iconic of these are Ao Nang beach and the beaches of Railay (or Rai Leh), a peninsula reached only by longtail boat from Ao Nang.
It’s a rapidly developing area. Just a year or two ago I still recommended people go to Ton Sai cove on Railay where the most low-budget options could be found, but it’s already been taken over by a property developer. Railay will surely become a mid-range destination soon, though can still find some bungalows for $20 a night if you look around.
The scenery is impressive and worth seeing despite the crowds — be sure to climb up to the lagoon and viewpoint! The area is also world-famous for its rock climbing, with introductory courses and equipment rental available in Railey, Ao Nang or Krabi Town.
Khao Sok National Park
Khao Sok is a wildlife reserve in southern Thailand. It’s a spectacular park, featuring lakes with floating bamboo houses, and limestone karst often rising up from the jungles. Spending some time here on a 2-day (or longer) excursion is a great way to add some adventure to what will inevitably be a very beaches-and-islands focused part of your trip in the south.
There are several trails from Khao Sok village that are can be walked independently, though most of them technically require a guide. Organised tours are a little easier in practice and often include additional activities such as kayaking, bamboo rafting, caving, ziplining, wildlife spotting, or overnighting in the jungle. Tours are easily booked from most guesthouses and locations in Krabi.
Koh Lanta might not be as instantly photogenic as other islands; while it has wonderful beaches, it lacks the craggy cliffs of Krabi or the hillside views of Koh Tao or Ko Phangan. But maybe that’s why Koh Lanta has stayed pleasantly low-key, offering family-friendly resorts along Khlong Khong beach along with a sprinkling of backpacker hostels mainly on Long Beach.
Koh Lanta is an excellent choice if you want to go somewhere a little chilled out on the west coast. It’s large enough to want to rent a motorbike to see it all, but still small enough to feel like an island. A few caves, a lighthouse, some snorkelling spots and waterfalls are the key sights to check out.
Koh Phangan is famed for its Full Moon Party, which once began as a psychedelic hippie beach bonfire but since grew into a massively commercialized event attracting tens of thousands of drunken revellers every month. For many it’s the key reason to visit, though outside of the Full Moon and Half-Moon events, Koh Phangan happens to be much more than just a party island.
For secluded beaches with affordable bungalows you only need to go to the west or northwest parts of the island. Bottle Beach in the north is even downright isolated, blissfully removed from the crowds in the south where the parties take place. With Koh Tao going increasingly mid / high-budget, Koh Phangan is the perfect budget traveller choice on the east coast. In recent years, the island has also established itself as a popular expat- and digital nomad hub.
Snorkeling & diving on Koh Tao
Koh Tao hosts the largest concentration of scuba diving schools in Asia (and quite possibly the world?), with high competition resulting in unbeatable prices. If you ever wanted to become a certified SCUBA diver, it’s one of the easiest places to do it.
I got my Open Water (4 days) and Advanced (2 days) on Koh Tao with Big Blue Diving, which I can highly recommend if you’re looking for a school with a fun sociable atmosphere. The reefs aren’t that great if you’re an experienced diver, but beginners will be able to see plenty of fishes, rays, and sea turtles in calm and easy waters. Accommodation on Koh Tao is becoming increasingly upscale, but you can get cheap rooms through many of the dive schools if you buy a dive package with them.
Thailand’s may be popular but that does mean travelling there is pretty easy—even if you have little travel experience.
- Buses are cheap and convenient, and can be easily booked from hostels or local agencies.
- Air travel is widely available with a host of regional airports. AirAsia is the main budget airline, offering a range of convenient island transfer packages from Bangkok which include connecting ferry tickets to the islands.
- Trains are a good option between Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north (also goes overnight) or Bangkok and Surat Thani in the south.
Don’t worry too much about travel logistics. Thailand sees lots of tourists so there are always plenty of options for getting to where you need to be. Your place of accommodation can usually help with bookings. You’ll also typically find lots of mom ‘n pop agencies everywhere letting you easily book tours or tickets.
While English is not so commonly spoken by Thai people, language issues are still pretty minimal. Most signs will also be in English, and anyone working in the tourism or service industry will be able to understand what you want to buy/order/etc.
Thailand is generally pretty safe. Crime does obviously occur (just as in any country), so keep your belongings secure and always apply common sense.
While Thailand is relatively worry-free, scams targeting tourists can be a problem. Be firm with taxi drivers or they may try to rip you off. Also, make sure you take some photos of any bicycle, bike, water scooter or anything else you rent prior to any use, as a popular scam is to claim you have caused damage and need to pay compensation.
Are you insured?
Get travel insurance and you’ll be covered for medical expenses, theft, personal liability, cancellation, and more. I recommend World Nomads, which offer flexible insurance for independent travellers with 24-hour worldwide assistance. (Here’s why you should get travel insurance.)Get a quote at world nomads »
Cost of travel
You can travel in Thailand on a backpacking budget of about $30 USD a day (which is €27 or £20). This assumes you eat local and stay in hostels or basic guesthouses.
The center and the north of Thailand are the cheapest. In Chiang Mai, for example, you can still find dorm beds starting at $4 a night, while the cheapest private room might be about $10 here. A shoestring budget of $20/day is possible in central or northern Thailand.
Things are more expensive in the south, especially on the coasts and islands. Prices on Phi Phi Island, for instance, have drifted towards the mid-range, with dorm beds costing around $20 and a basic private room around $40 there. Even a budget traveller might see their expenses approach $50/day in the south, potentially more if you like to treat yourself.
My Southeast Asia cost of travel overview has charts and up-to-date prices for 2017.
When is the rainy season?
September and October are the rainiest months across the entire country.
On the west coast (such as in Krabi, Koh Phi Phi or Koh Lanta), the monsoon lasts longer. Rains start becoming more frequent around May and last roughly until October. It’s low season on the west coast during this time.
On the east coast (e.g. Koh Samui, Koh Tao), the rainy season runs from September until December.
Keep in mind though that even in the rainy season, it won’t literally rain all the time. For example, I spent extensive time on the west coast in May and it was fine with barely a drop of rain. I was on the east coast in December and it was mostly fine. On another trip, I was in the north in October, but had only a few rainy days. The rice fields were lush and green.
Still, it’s possible to get quite unlucky. If you have just a week to spend in Thailand and need it to be ‘perfect’, you’ll probably want to target the main tourist season (roughly December to February). If you’re travelling longer you can worry a bit less, as a rainy day here and there will probably have less of a dramatic impact on your travel plans.
If you’re about to depart for Thailand and your weather app shows thunderclouds for the whole week, don’t panic just yet! In hot climates like these it’s common to have some thunder in the evenings, but good weather during the day—however, weather sites will then just use the thunderclouds icon for that entire day, which can look pretty alarming on a weekly forecast.
Places worth skipping
In closing, these are a few places that might be less interesting to the independent traveller (if you ask me)…
- Patong (and much of Phuket). Overdeveloped, overpriced and, well… full of idiots. Within minutes after arriving I saw a drunk shirtless man stumble into a McDonald’s repeatedly yelling “GIVE ME A FUCKING BURGER!”. This basically set the tone for Patong, and I didn’t feel much at home here.
- Pattaya – seedy sex tourism hotspot and lackluster beach resort
- Koh Samui – a beautiful island, though most people fly in here directly and don’t leave their upmarket resorts, making the island a little uninteresting if you’re not on a package holiday. Go to nearby Koh Tao or Koh Phangan for better vibes.
- Koh Phi Phi – this one’s jumped the shark. Way overpriced and a victim of its own success. Lonely Planet stopped listing it in the top 20 in its guidebook, which makes sense. There are plenty of nicer alternatives!
- South-East Asia Itinerary Suggestions – For 2 Weeks To 2 Months
Going on a larger trip? Find out what’s next after Thailand…
- Travel Zen: Avoiding FOMO & Being Happier On The Road
Read this if you’re finding it impossible to decide where to go
- Photo Impressions of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia
A mini photo essay
- Southeast Asia Backpacking: Cost Of Travel Overview
See how costs in Thailand compare to other countries in the region
- View all of my posts about Thailand »
Around the web
General Thailand guides & activities
- Bangkok’s Most Weird Attractions – Renegade Travels
Some genuinely unusual and interesting sights
- Things I Avoided in Bangkok (and Why You Should Too) – Plan Save Travel
- 7 Things to Do in Thailand That Will Push Your Limits – Travel Freak
A great overview of adventurous activities
- 10 Tips for Visiting Pai – One Modern Couple
Solid advice on getting the most out of your visit to Pai
- Bamboo rafting near Chiang Mai report – Tieland to Thailand
A fun and less-known activity in northern Thailand
- My absurdly long guide to Thailand
This Reddit thread is a goldmine of information.
- Where To Stay In Bangkok – Nerd Nomads
Great descriptions of Bangkok’s neighborhoods with suggested hotels
- All you need to know about the Full Moon Party – Elsewhere Man
A level-headed take on the infamous beach party
- How much to budget for a month in Thailand – Backpacker Banter
- How Much Does it Cost to Travel Thailand on a Budget? [Infographic]
- The Secret Islands Of Thailand
More lesser-known islands where you can escape the crowds
- The Ultimate Guide to Koh Lipe – Getting Stamped
Great guide to Thailand’s most southern island, near Malaysia
- Koh Tao Attractions – My Top 15 – Latina Abroad
More info on Thailand: check out the WikiVoyage page for some more destination info. Looking for a more comprehensive guide? Then grab a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, available on paperback or as ebook.
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